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Based on her analysis of more than 2,500 hours of makeover TV, Weber argues that the much-desired After-body speaks to and makes legible broader cultural narratives about selfhood, citizenship, celebrity, and Americanness. Although makeovers are directed at both male and female viewers, their gendered logic requires that feminized subjects submit to the controlling expertise wielded by authorities. The genre does not tolerate ambiguity. Conventional (middle-class, white, ethnically anonymous, heterosexual) femininity is the goal of makeovers for women. When subjects are male, makeovers often compensate for perceived challenges to masculine independence by offering men narrative options for resistance or control. Foregoing a binary model of power and subjugation, Weber provides an account of makeover television that is as appreciative as it is critical. She reveals the makeover show as a rich and complicated text that expresses cultural desires and fears through narratives of selfhood.
“The book is an engaging work that is as humorous as it is horrifying. While Weber’s very personal conclusion still questions the processes of humiliation and painful surgical procedures endured in the name of reality TV, she remains quietly optimistic about the role of the makeover genre because, after all, we all want to feel better about ourselves.” - Peter C. Pugsley, Media International Australia
“[Weber’s] book blends the enthusiasm of a fan who has thought through her own connection to the genre with a high degree of scholarship that will be of considerable value to students and scholars alike. . . . It is the combination of redemption and coercion that make lifestyle such a fascinating genre and Weber’s book such an engaging read.” - Gareth Palmer, Celebrity Studies
“Weber sees in these makeover programs a strange new world—or, more accurately, a strange new nation, one where citizenship is available only to those who have made the transition ‘from Before to After.’ . . . Weber’s makeover nation is an eerie place, because no one fully belongs there, and, deep down, everyone knows it.” - Kelefeh Sanneh, The New Yorker
Makeovers are everywhere in today’s society, though I had never really given much thought to them until I read Brenda R. Weber’s Makeover TV. Weber points out that we are making over everything: bodies, houses, cars, hair, lifestyles, wardrobes, and even pets. . . . It was a bit scary to realize how right Weber is, and that so much ‘entertainment’ on TV is focused on making people conform to the norm. Makeover TV is a good, eye-opening read.” - Kristin Conard, Feminist Review blog
“Makeover TV is a great book and a true pleasure to read. Brenda R. Weber’s treatment of makeover television as a crafting of the self within the broad scope of neoliberalism, postfeminism, and a kind of savvy consumerism is convincing and provocative. Her book is an important contribution to television studies, media studies, feminist theory, and cultural theory.”—Sarah Banet-Weiser, author of Kids Rule!: Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship
“Makeover TV is a project of striking originality and timeliness, written by a skillful, sure critic. Brenda R. Weber’s analyses are consistently subtle and penetrating.”—Diane Negra, co-editor of Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture
Americanness, Neoliberalism, and the Citizen-Subject
There's no wardrobe too bleak, no dye job too horrible, to keep us from making America a truly beautiful place.
-Trinny, makeover guru, Making Over America with Trinny and Susannah
Makeover professionals help families accomplish their goals and gain a new lease on the American Dream.
-Renovate My Family
I'm feeling so confident, so sexy! There's nothing that can stop me now!
-Erin, makeover subject, What Not to Wear
On the DVD boxed set of MTV's Pimp My Ride, season two, there reads a compelling tag line: "There are no wheels too worthless, no ride too ragged. There is no ride unpimpable!" In this statement of egalitarian optimism comes a promise of reclamation and renewal for a plurality of ratty, tattered, and decrepit bodies. We are encouraged to believe that no body is a priori blocked from transformation. In the doctrine that no ride is unpimpable that sounds across the wider makeover genre, we hear an equally reassuring promise that once rides have been pimped, physical bodies nipped and tucked, personal styles tweaked, families super-nannied, and rooms pizazzed, these renovations themselves will entitle After-bodies to take up residence in a territory where all citizens are beautiful, stylish, uncluttered, well-mannered, financially successful, heterosexually fulfilled, and, most of all, confident and welcoming of the gaze (a position coded as both celebrated and of the celebrity). Such is the power of transformation that makeovers empower subjects to voice wondrous statements of jubilation and reward ("I can do anything now!" "I'm going straight to the top!"). These discourses tie the workings of the makeover to broader constitutions of democratic citizenship predicated on meritocratic mobility within free markets and societies.
In this chapter I argue that TV makeovers participate in projects of citizenship, where the neoliberal mandate for care of the self in service of the market fuses with values of a mythic, egalitarian America to create a new, imagined territory I call Makeover Nation. In Makeover Nation, one's selfhood is intelligible through and on the body or its various symbolic stand-ins (cars, kids, homes, etc.) and functions as a critical element of both belonging to and participating in a democracy. Within this construction of the discerning democratic citizen who votes with his or her taste, it is not the United States specifically but an imagined version of America more abstractly that offers the ideological hub of makeover programming. Makeover Nation, as a consequence, dislocates from the material borders imposed by nation-state boundaries, making it possible within the authorizing logic constructed by the text for any person to claim citizenship status simply by complying with makeover mandates. Makeovers need not be "made in America" to carry a broader ideology of Americanness that positions the After-body as the quintessence of what constitutes a valued subject. In this case, as Judith Butler argues more broadly, to be human is "defined in advance" as "distinctly Western" and "very often American" (Undoing Gender 36, 37). Makeover TV articulates a new imagined nation of beautiful, self-assured, and self-confident people whose lifestyles, appearances, domiciles, relationships, and cars signify happiness and material security that leads, ultimately, to widespread confident visibility. In Makeover Nation, not only do all subjects merit and bask in the gaze, but those who eschew being looked at denaturalize themselves as worthy citizen-subjects.
As Dana Heller notes in The Great American Makeover, it is no accident that the makeover would find sustenance through the tropes of expansionism and reinvention that have typified the American story. In its emphasis on progress, its desire to provide access to restricted privileges, and its insistence on a free-market meritocracy, the project of citizenship imagined across the makeover genre comes deeply saturated with Americanness and this, in turn, imports neoliberal ideologies, which position the subject as an entrepreneur of the self, who does and, indeed, must engage in care of the body and its symbolic referents in order to be competitive within a larger global marketplace. In neoliberalism, the subject performs such maintenance of the self ostensibly as a free agent with the state exempted from social welfare responsibilities. Within Makeover Nation, Americanness broadly indicates a collective set of values and goals marked by the American Dream. Formerly, this has entailed home ownership and upward mobility, but in this new mediated landscape the American Dream now extends to affective entitlements, such as confidence and swagger, as well as to a broader sense of value, visibility, and charisma marked by a celebrated selfhood, an identity formation I discuss at greater length in chapter 5.
Anyone who lives in Makeover Nation has earned their citizenship through the process of the makeover itself, a figurative transformation event that yields not just a "you-only better!" but access to affective and social dividends, such as optimism and belonging. Makeover programs construct a version of the good and proper citizen as one who is self-aware, an active participant in consumer culture, marked as racially normative, and willing to alter the material signifiers of subject status to more fully assimilate into a dominant model of "American" citizenry. Though the makeover is equally committed to rectifying discrepancies between gender and sex in their subjects, thus making masculinized women more feminine and effeminate men more masculine, I reserve specific analyses on how gender and sex contribute to the ideal citizen-subject to later chapters that take up matters of masculinity and femininity. In charting the imagined community that is Makeover Nation, I consider models of personhood that the makeover depicts as transcending race, class, and gender precisely because privileged iterations of these social locations disallow their own dominance.
The central questions I consider in making over the citizen-subjects include: To what degree do the goals of the makeover, both concrete and abstract, construct the model citizen and articulate aspects of Americanness? How does the concept of citizenship filter through neoliberal goals of individualization, reduced state responsibility, free enterprise, market competition, and global currencies? To what extent are power, confidence, and happiness raced and classed terms, held out as necessary precursors for full citizenry rights? To what degree are being in gender conformance (rather than in gender deviance) and having an appearance that signifies as upwardly mobile critical to Americanness as a project? And how do million dollar smiles and movie star bodies function as currency for purchasing citizenry rights?
Making (Over) the Citizen
Benedict Anderson argues in his important formulation of conceptual national identities that every nation is an "imagined community" in which members perceive themselves as individual actors within a larger collective body, since "the members of even the smallest nation will never know their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each they carry the image of communion" (15). Anderson has been criticized for the way in which his theory disallows difference, yet we can see that Makeover Nation draws its sustaining value from its imagined collective coherency, a belief in a citizenship of belonging that is largely predicated on abstract values of U.S. citizenship in its valorizing of autonomy, class mobility, egalitarianism, and self-making. More specifically, makeovers evoke the United States through their self-consciousness and manipulation of image, since the refinement of persons, houses, and cities has historically provided the United States a way to claim a collective cultural capital in response to and defiance of European aristocratic cultures. As Toby Miller observes, this performance of an "ethico-aesthetic exercise" has allowed "'good taste'" to function as "both a sign of and a means toward better citizenship" ("Cultural Citizenship" 238).
Comparing the outcome of television makeover shows with the real-world politics of citizenship may at first seem counterintuitive, since a democratic citizenry is ideally predicated on pluralism and makeover shows seem quite patently patterned on sameness. Indeed, the humiliating and shame-inducing makeover narratives are themselves hardly sites of democratic egalitarianism. At best, shows create mediated environments that are benevolent dictatorships, in which the demands of fitness coaches and style gurus must be followed if the subject is to pass into what it posits as the normative iterations of the citizen-subject. Through the process of affective domination, which I discuss at greater length in chapter 2, subjects are disciplined into citizenry through a combination of shaming and love-power that reinforces divisions between the abject alienation of Before and the normative celebration of After. After-bodies are not simply distinctive from Before, they are different from all other bodies in a plurality that has not (yet) undergone a makeover.
Whatever the criteria for inclusion in the domain of Makeover Nation's citizenship, and no matter to what degree we are assured that "there is no ride unpimpable," certain groups or individuals are inevitably left outside. This, in itself, models a form of double-speak endemic to citizenship discourses, where, as Linda Bosniak notes, citizenship is "commonly invoked to convey a state of democratic belonging or inclusion," yet such discourses are "premised on a conception of a community that is bounded and exclusive" (1). Bosniak emphasizes, "citizenship status in any given nation is almost always restricted, available only to those who are recognized as its members" (31). Within a global marketplace where, as economist Alan Blinder emphasizes, "globalization amounts to Americanization," the double-speak of U.S.-endorsed equality tears against the realities of globalization where significant numbers of people are excluded from the protections and privileges offered by the global marketplace. Claims for what constitute citizenry often, therefore, reinforce exclusion.
Inclusion, by contrast, demands that one does not violate normalizing criteria. A citizenship-of-belonging confers rights of self-governance and self-representation, articulated in a real-world democratic context through the right to vote and the right to hold office, and thus to create and alter legislation. Historically, when disenfranchised groups have fought for full citizenship status, as seen in the battle for women's suffrage, it was for equal treatment and equal value, for self-possession and self-government, the right to maintain bodily integrity as well as to own and inherit property. As has been more recently demonstrated in same-sex marriage debates and limited state protections for non-conventional domestic partnerships, the dividends of citizenship are applied unequally even for those with uncontested claims to national identity. Citizenship debates in this way relate specifically to social conventions instantiated through normative constructions of gender, sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and class. As Lisa Duggan's work on the history of racial and sexual violence indicates, technologies of citizenship manifested through legal and medical discourses help mobilize "a specifically American version of normative national sexuality" based on regulated articulations of gender roles, whiteness, and respectability (Twilight 5). In this regard, the television makeover show functions as a critical discourse for mobilizing a regulated citizenry.
In makeover programming, there is a preoccupation with these same anxieties about sexuality, race, and class, though because of the primary focus on women's bodies, behaviors, and appearances, one positive implication of the makeover's citizen construction might well be its assumption that women rightfully belong to the collective citizenry, provided they are willing to transform into signifiers of that citizenry's values. Makeovers are by-and-large preoccupied with white female bodies, feminine affect, and feminized spaces, and therefore tend to target white, female, working-class, middle-class, and middle-aged bodies. Yet, white men are also implicated in the imperatives of a collective normativity, since shows frequently turn their expertise to remedy male complaints, salvaging the male subject's imperiled masculinity through style renovations or mechanical overhauls. As a demographic locality, Makeover Nation is primarily populated with anxious and aging feminized white people, those concerned with getting (or retaining) an edge in a competitive romantic and professional marketplace.
Race and class matter in this construction. On rare occasion people of color are included: my informal sampling suggests that makeovers target women of color (primarily African American, Hispanic, and Asian) in roughly twenty percent of episodes; they focus on men of color (predominantly African American) in approximately one percent of shows. As I discuss in chapters 3 and 4, makeovers handle race and ethnicity either by ignoring it or as design accessories, since ethnic exoticism can help pull a look together, as argues such style shows as Isaac and Ambush Makeover, while home-decorating programs, like Design on a Dime, enhance interiors through Moroccan-inspired living rooms (regardless of the subjects' ethnic make-up). Though there seems to be a self-conscious commitment on the part of certain producers to include what might be termed people of color-and indeed, the Cuban creator and producer of The Swan, Nely Galán, strove to make the show proportionately balanced between Latina and Caucasian women-race and ethnicity are seldom overtly mentioned across the makeover canon. On home and car shows we can see some point of contrast, but not of departure, for though these shows tend to include greater diversity, their colonizing logic is one whereby middle-class racial anonymity predominates.
As it concerns the making of the ideal citizen, though class messages are seldom overtly uttered, the significance of class is insistent in makeovers, since so many programs seek to improve appearance by making the body seem (or become) more refined, less shaggy, better maintained-with expensive clothes, highlights, skin treatments, furniture, computer systems, security features, and so on. Masculinity norms articulate in this class mix in very different ways than do femininity norms. For example, most men requiring transformation in style and body shows have working-class markers written on the Before-body, as in the case of a 10 Years Younger episode that featured Mike, a builder of freeway bridges in Los Angeles. Post makeover, when Mike emerges in a tailored shirt and navy blazer, the host exclaims, "You look like a movie star, man!," which we can take as a sign that appearing both upwardly mobile and youthful co-articulate as a form of cultural currency coded as celebrity-worthy. For women, style and body makeovers are also geared toward making female subjects look more "monied," but a woman's value codes through a spectacular appearance that merits an appreciative and eroticized gaze. Whether the pre-madeover female body emits signs of working-class or middle-class placement, the successful makeover typically puts the woman in four-inch heels, with sparkly and skin-revealing clothing, and tinted and highlighted hair (often with expensive extensions). She is not ready for the boardroom but for the public stage-be that the red carpet, the billboard, or the runway-a world of desiring fans/lovers affirming her value.
Excerpted from MAKEOVER TV by Brenda R. Weber Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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